ABC Central West Interview

  • Transcript
Subjects: China trade, bushfire assistance, JobKeeper, COVID-19.
13 May 2020

Ewan Gilbert: Well, our federal politicians are all back in Canberra this week. It was supposed to be a bit of a political celebration — Budget Week, where the government was set to hand down its long-awaited surplus. Instead, life, as we know, has different plans. In a moment, political scientist Dominic O’Sullivan will walk us through some of the big issues but we’re joined first up this morning by the Federal Member for Calare, Andrew Gee. Very good morning to you, Andrew.

Andrew Gee: Good morning Ewan, and good morning to all of your listeners out there.

Ewan Gilbert: Is it a brisk morning in Canberra, this morning?

Andrew Gee: It is brisk morning in Canberra.

Ewan Gilbert: It’s always a brisk morning in Canberra.

Andrew Gee: Always something happening.

Ewan Gilbert: One of your titles these days, Andrew, is you are the Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment. If this push and shove with China continues on much further, our region certainly has a lot to lose. What’s your reading of the situation at the moment?

Andrew Gee: Look, I think it’s just a question of working calmly through the issues, some of which have been put upon us pretty quickly, for example with the beef issue, with these abattoirs. It’s apparently a labelling issue and so we are just trying to get some visibility through DFAT and our overseas posts, trying to figure out what’s going on in terms of the actual issue, so that we can get to the bottom of it. With the barley issue, that’s one that’s been bubbling away for a couple of years and has now suddenly surfaced. What the nub of the complaint is they are saying our barley farmers are getting subsidies and because of that, it amounts to dumping on the world market, and therefore, these tariffs should be imposed. But if you look at what they’re saying the subsidies are, and our farmers are the most competitive and subsidy-free farmers in the world, and they’ve had to battle with that but we are the most competitive and the leanest farmers in the world. But what they’re saying is, for example, the Murray-Darling Basin programs that aim to enhance water efficiency, for example, irrigation infrastructure projects, they’re saying that all of these measures like that amount to a subsidy and so, they basically take the amount of the program, which in that case they say it’s $10 billion, and they divide it up along the lines of ‘okay, you’ve got x amount of land that’s under barley production, so this is the amount of subsidy you’ll get, and this is the tariff we’re going to slap on’ so it hasn’t been finalised yet. There’s still a final report to come down in a week but obviously we would say there’s nothing to any of that and we would say we have answers to all of the methodology that has been raised, we take issue with that and also the fact that our farmers don’t receive subsidies. We’re party to all of these free trade agreements, which require us to not put in subsidies for different sectors, including our farmers. And we’ve got the most competitive and subsidy-free agriculture sector in the world; we’ve got the best farmers in the world, and we would say that these complaints are not justified but nevertheless, they have been put on the table so they need to be answered and that’s what we are going to do.

Ewan Gilbert: Ok, the fact that not even you’re entirely clear on why China has banned the export of, or import of Australian beef does suggest that, at least in part, do you think because of the Australian Government’s push internationally for an independent investigation into where this virus came from?

Andrew Gee: Look, I think at this point all we can do is take these complaints on their merits at this stage and-

Ewan Gilbert: We’re not even sure what the complaint is, are we? It’s just labelling concerns.

Andrew Gee: I think the issue seems to be labelling that doesn’t, that may not match some sort of other record, like dockets or something. We’re just trying to get a handle on it.

Ewan Gilbert: Sure.

Andrew Gee: So we obviously, if you want to put that on the table, that obviously has to be answered. That’s what we’re going to do. I think it’s just a case of calmly working through these issues and trying to find a resolution to them.

Ewan Gilbert: Is there cause for concern more locally, across your electorate do you think, the Chinese Ambassador last week, he listed beef and barley as two areas that he thought if you know, if the government kept going along its line of pushing for an investigation, might be at threat? But the other ones he listed were wine exports, education, both of which pretty important for the Central West too?

Andrew Gee: Yeah, look, I think we’ll just have to see what happens. I don’t think there’s any point going into speculation at this point about what may or may not happen. In terms of the barley, Western Australia is by far and away —

Ewan Gilbert: It is.

Andrew Gee: — the biggest barley-producing state New South Wales is pretty far down on the list, in terms of barley production. We’ve just got to also get some visibility on whether we have local producers with livestock going through those abattoirs, especially the one at Casino. So a little bit too early to talk about local impacts yet but I guess that will all be revealed in the days ahead. In the meantime, I think from our point of view, we’re going to be refuting and answering these issues and okay, if they are going to be raised, I’m sure we’ll be able to give the necessary assurances that we’re complying with whatever regulations that are in place. But in the meantime, we’re just getting on with it and we’ll have to see where the chips fall-

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: -as this plays out. There’s not much we can do at this point except put up the best case we can to answer the claims. And I’ve had a look at the complaints on barley. I’ve read through them all and –

Ewan Gilbert: They don’t stack up to you?

Andrew Gee: Look, I don’t think there’s a case to answer but, obviously, when you’ve got another country saying there is a case to answer, well, it has to be taken seriously. And we are. And we’re going to answer every point that’s raised there. And in the meantime, we’re just going to keep sticking with our game plan, in terms of getting our trade supply chains back up and running in the wake of Corona virus and-

Ewan Gilbert: Just on another issue. Andrew Gee’s with us, the Member for Calare. On Monday, I think, the Prime Minister unveiled the last and sort of major element of the bushfire recovery funding, about $650 million I think, of federal money to try and help communities like those around Lithgow and Mudgee to rebuild after the summer’s bushfires. Is that the last of the money they can expect, and will that do the job, do you think?

Andrew Gee: Well, I think we’ll just have to see how it goes. The federal bushfire support package is now at about $2 billion, $650 million is a fair chunk of cash-

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Gee: Look, I’m hoping this will make a huge difference to folks on the ground, but we’re not done yet. And so I think, I think that point also needs to be made. We’ve still got issues out there with, for example, trees that haven’t been cleared on public property and also private property. We’ve still got, the New South Wales Government is still not through clearing house sites. And on top of that, you’ve got the huge economic hit. You’ve got the cost in terms of lost flora and fauna. You’ve got community wellbeing, telecommunications issues have been raised as well. They’ve come to the floor as part of this emergency and the need to get better coverage for our emergency services, but also for our community. And that’s certainly something that’s on the agenda. So I think $650 million will go a long way to helping, whether we need more or not, I think we’ll just have to monitor it and see how it goes. But obviously, I’ve got three local government areas in Calare, which have been on the front line and have been devastated, but if you look at the effects right across the region, you had a huge economic impact from that, and for example, our winemakers have had smoke-taint issues. That’s still a live issue that they’re working through. So the effects have gone far and wide, and on top of that you’ve had COVID-19 and so if you look at those accommodation providers, particularly in those front line LGA’s, they’ve had bushfire hits and now they’ve got COVID, a hit with that as well. So a very difficult time. So I’m hoping this will go a long way to helping-

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah. Has it come fast enough, do you think? There has been some criticisms that the relief has been trickling out far too slowly.

Andrew Gee: Look, I think as far as the Federal Government is concerned, we got our funding out straight away and certainly, the money that we were giving the local councils, a lot of that was spent very wisely, for example Lithgow. They used it to employ arborists to get up to those areas, [inaudible] to clear trees. We’ve had the Indonesian Army up there. I think as far as the Federal Government response went, it was quick, although I’ve just made a submission to the Natural Disaster Royal Commission in which I’ve said that our communities would liked to have seen the ADF get involved in firefighting and also support roles earlier. Now there are obviously state/federal issues which probably prevented that and the fire was being managed by New South Wales and I think they were reluctant to ask for help, quite frankly. But I think that is something that does need to be looked at because when the emergency was on and I was out on the front lines every day with our firies, and the message that was coming through was basically, we want ADF help faster and sooner. So that’s one of the issues that I’ve put in my submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission, and I’ve also made that known to, obviously, the Prime Minister and other key decision makers. But look, I think, in a disaster like that, which crosses state borders, we need a mechanism so that the feds can come in earlier and we’re not bogged down in, kind of, silos or demarcation disputes. And I think, quite honestly, I think there was an element of that going on, because I would ring up the Defence Minister and say, ‘look, can we get the defence in here ASAP?’ and the response would be, ‘look, we would but states aren’t asking for it, so until they actually ask for it we can’t bring it in.’ And some of these bodies, ever the RFS, can be quite political at times, and as many bodies can, so I think we’ve got to find a way of cutting through that so that we can get help faster. But I think once it became, the scale of this became apparent, the federal money has certainly flowed. And I haven’t been upset about that but I think, as a nation, we can probably do a bit better in our disaster response, in terms of getting the ADF in there sooner, get them trained up for firefighting. There are ways in which we can do that so we don’t have to go through an awful emergency on this scale again.

Ewan Gilbert: Yep.

Andrew Gee: I think we’ve got to learn the lessons from that, and we’ve got to learn the lessons from COVID-19 as well and look to the future of the economy and what we’re doing with production in Australia. So I think with all of these emergencies and crises and disasters, we’ve got to take the lessons out of them and yeah, in terms of the ADF response, that’s certainly one of them.

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah. You’ve spent quite a bit of time in the fire-affected regions in this region, Andrew. When you talk to people there, they’ve got what they need, they’re happy with everything the way that it’s that’s sort of unfolding at the moment, you think?

Andrew Gee: Look, I think they, I think generally speaking, they are. I think we, up around Clarence and Dargan I think there’s still some more tree-clearing issues that need to be taken care of. I think that the, in terms of the New South Wales Government and the contracting of the clean ups of sites, that has taken longer than has been expected. But in terms of the physical wellbeing, most people have, are okay I think. We’ve had Rick and Bev out at Cherry Tree Hill that’ve been building a new house out at their place, they’ve been given some mobile temporary accommodation. I think they were living in a van. So I think most people, their physical needs are okay at the moment but there are still some longer term issues there and I also think there’s going to be some longer term mental health issues as well, anecdotally. So certainly we’ve been trying to get the support out there.

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: And we’ve been to all of those communities, just letting folks know what support is out there and how they can get it. So, the recovery from the bushfires alone is going to take years, let alone COVID-19.

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah, just finally, can I ask you on COVID-19, the Federal Government last week sort of gave the nation, states and territory leaders, a bit of a menu to pick from in terms of easing restrictions. Each state and territory has gone about it in a very different way. So these restrictions in New South Wales are sort of set to ease slightly on Friday. It’s hard to know if they’ll really make much of an impact though here, locally, most cafes and restaurants will struggle to survive on a ten-person limit. Are you kind of happy how they’re being unwound in New South Wales at the moment, or would you like to see it happen slower or faster?

Andrew Gee: I would’ve liked to have seen regional areas open up faster because, if you look what’s happening around Australia, many of our country areas have had no cases whatsoever. We have no active cases now between Bathurst and Broken Hill. So I think you could’ve made the case for easing restrictions in country areas sooner. And I was an advocate of that. I think New South Wales has probably taken a different view to that and said, ‘oh we want them all lifted at the same time.’ But I think in those areas where infection rates are lower, you can certainly make the case for lifting the restrictions sooner. And the reason we need to, one of the reasons besides the health situation being under control, we’ve now got fever clinics opening up all over the Central West, so testing is going to be a key part of it. Downloading the app is going to be a key part. I was a sceptic but I’ve decided to download it now just so I think it’s, you know, for the public good. If we can ease restrictions sooner and that helps, then let’s do it. But I think in country areas, I would’ve liked to have seen them opening up sooner and schools going back sooner because the economic outline, which the Treasurer gave to the house yesterday, before he started coughing and had to go and get tested — was very-

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: -sobering. $143billion dollar projected deficit. We went into this crisis with a debt to GDP ratio of about 19 per cent. Lord knows where it’s going to end up but I guess the point is, all of this has to be paid for. So we need people back to work if the health authorities say it’s okay and we need firms opening up again and paying taxes to pay for all of this because it’s our kids and grandkids who are going to be saddled with all this debt and there is a price for everything, and so we can’t keep the country in lockdown indefinitely, particularly when everyone’s done the right thing, of course, hard yards. Staying in lockdown, we’ve got those infection rates down. Now we have to, I think, in a sensible and sober way just ease them up for the wider economic health of the country.

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: Now the health situation seems to have stabilised. I have to say, we’re not out of the woods.

Ewan Gilbert: No.

Andrew Gee: COVID-19 is still lurking out there, if you have those flu-like symptoms go and get tested, you’ll be doing yourself a favour, but also helping the wider community. And download the app. I don’t know, you know, I don’t think it’s open to hacking. But even if they do, what are they really going to find? And probably not a lot of information there but the safeguards are in there with the app. But look, if I came into contact with someone with COVID-19, I think it’ll be useful to know about so I could go and get tested and my family could.

Ewan Gilbert: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: I’ve downloaded the app, and I’m not in the kind of conspiracy theory camp on that one.

Ewan Gilbert: Good to know. Would you go as far as some of your colleagues in pushing in winding back JobKeeper and JobSeeker quicker? In terms of trying to force people and businesses to get back to work faster?

Andrew Gee: We’ve got to get back to work, there’s no doubt about that. I mean this is, those measures were a, basically, a one-off emergency and they have been effective in stabilising businesses and the economy but the sooner we can get businesses open and the sooner we can move away from them, you know, that’s ideal because we need people back in work and we need companies open and paying taxes so it can’t be an indefinite situation. Because we can’t afford it, like it’s –

Ewan Gilbert: It’s not indefinite though, it’s only for six months?

Andrew Gee: Yeah but if businesses are opening up we can get people back to work then obviously they won’t need to be on JobKeeper, that’s my point. I’m not saying suddenly, rip it away now but I think the sooner we can get people back to work, the better, so that they don’t need it. That’s basically the point of it and you know, I think it has been very effective in terms of getting businesses back on their feet. But I’m not saying suddenly take it off. What I am saying is if we can get businesses back open, if we can get people employed then we don’t need it and that’s the situation we should be aiming for.

Ewan Gilbert: Okay. Andrew Gee lovely to speak with you this morning enjoy Canberra and stay virus-free there at the moment. It was good news this morning that the Treasurer was, indeed, just a bit of a dry cough yesterday. Not something more serious, which was nice to hear. Rug up and we’ll talk to you soon.

Andrew Gee: Alright, thank you.

Media enquiries